Adapt, Evolve, or Be Forced Out of Existence. Letter to the Editor: Amanda Luby, Welbourne Stud

Amanda Luby | courtesy of Amanda Luby

In racing, there is nothing more horrific than watching a horse break down in front of you. My heart goes out to every person connected with each of the horses that has lost its life in this manner and to each fan who's witnessed this. As my husband said after Maple Leaf Mel's tragic end, “They're just innocent animals!” He left immediately after her death, horrorstruck, and, fortunately, was not at the track on Travers Day. Like countless other casual fans who've seen such awful things, it is unlikely that he will ever return to watch another race, and racing needs to understand this is the visceral reaction casual fans experience when they see these beautiful animals falter so terribly. These fans, these bettors, don't come back to the sport.

I was at Saratoga on both Whitney and Travers Day. Maple Leaf Mel and New York Thunder's injuries were the most gruesome I've ever seen in my decades in horse racing. I left the track in tears this past Saturday, having my own visceral reaction, believing strongly that NYRA should have shut down racing immediately.

A friend of mine is a crisis communications expert and she was with me this past Saturday. She's done work for the NFL and some of the world's most complex companies. She currently is the head of U.S. Communications for one of the largest law firms in the world.  She has come to racing later in life, but is a horsewoman first and foremost. After witnessing New York Thunder's demise on Saturday, she summarized her thoughts below:

   I get the complexities of shutting down the massive machinery of a racetrack. The business model impacts countless others that depend upon the race meet continuing. But you cannot dismiss the concerns of the public. While I can understand the need to take a broader look at the whole situation, the reality is that the optics of the breakdowns are awful. And you can't have horses running down the stretch on three legs. To give an NFL analogy, as soon as plaintiffs' lawyers could prove a causal link between football and head injuries, the sport had to change [because it risked losing everything]. Every time a horse breaks down, racing's license to operate gets shredded. Change has to happen immediately.

While I wasn't born into the sport, I've been in it my entire life. My passion for Thoroughbred racing has been a driving force in much of my professional and personal life; but this life straddles two worlds because no one else in my family or even my lifelong, closest friends are part of the sport. Because of them, I'm acutely aware of what people outside of the sport are saying. Saratoga residents who've been casual fans over the years are done. Friends around the U.S. texted me and were aghast. They were turned onto the sport because of me and now I feel responsible for the images they can't get out of their heads.

In the past few weeks, driven by this passion, I have communicated directly with various NYRA board members about my concerns and offered solutions and encouragement. This past year, with the breakdowns at last year's Breeders' Cup, on every Triple Crown Day and the country's elite meet suffering from the most awful of repeated tragedies on its biggest days…well, the damage is incalculable.

I come from a science background; and I'm a trial lawyer and general counsel by trade. I get needing to have the evidence to justify corporate decisions. However, what I don't get is being frozen and ill-prepared for such a crisis as what has befallen Saratoga this year given all of the knowledge we already have.  Let's be clear, this is an industry-wide problem. We've known for years through the research of Dr. Susan Stover and others that the vast majority of catastrophic breakdowns are the result of pre-existing, micro-factures and injuries. We have observed both historical and recent patterns that breakdowns routinely occur after dirt tracks are sealed. We know rain-sodden turf tracks become uneven, slippery, and/or unsafe, particularly on the turns. We already have the data that dirt tracks are significantly more dangerous than turf; and that synthetic tracks are safer than turf. We know that biometric and diagnostic technologies can help trainers and veterinarians identify the slightest changes in horses' biomechanics and that having a standing MRI on-site at every racetrack could help veterinarians diagnose earlier and prevent fatal injuries.

The general public may not know all of these details, but it witnesses the consequences of not prioritizing safety in every aspect of the sport. Businesses cannot be so data-driven that they forget the emotions of the day, compartmentalize away the sorrowful humanity of recent events; and fail to implement immediate changes. Sometimes business needs to conduct itself with more heart. The younger, larger generations demand that; and they are the future of this sport.

I do have faith that this generational awareness is something NYRA's CEO appreciates as he regularly invites families from Saratoga's “Backyard” into the paddock to get them closer to these magnificent animals of which we are all stewards. WE ARE STEWARDS, as Jena Antonucci has reminded us this year, and that includes each track operator, racehorse owner, training operation, veterinarian, breeder, handicapper, and fan. A steward is a person who is responsible for the safety and welfare of another; and thus, it is incumbent upon each of us who professes to care for these animals to do everything in our power to ensure their well-being. This means each stakeholder, at every level, needs to adjust its business model.

What can be done now, with the information we have today?

(1) Ensure on-site access to, and immediate utilization of, the biometric and diagnostic technologies at the racetracks.

(2) Replace the dirt. The data we have NOW proves racing on synthetics is the safest. U.S. racing and breeding industry cannot keep justifying breeding for, and racing on, dirt. Hall of Fame trainer Mark Casse zeroed in on that in his recent TDN interview. Every track, including each of the tracks that hosts the Triple Crown races and Breeders' Cup, needs to convert their dirt tracks to synthetic, and HISA needs to consider this as a mandate. These synthetic tracks would also ensure that races that need to come off the turf can transition safely.

(3) Breeders and owners/buyers need to get behind this; and

(4) they absolutely must, regardless of the importance of a race, empower their trainers and veterinarians to scratch horses if they have the slightest bit of concern about a horse's soundness. It is irresponsible, to say the least, to take the opposite approach.

If the sport truly puts its money where its mouth is, then it would put equine welfare first in all things and change. In the end, this sport will either adapt, evolve, or be forced out of existence by a repulsed public.

Amanda Luby, Welbourne Stud

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